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Chronological Archive • April 13, 2003 - April 19, 2003
April 18, 2003
Sean Gabb on liberal education

I have just been reading Sean Gabb's one hundredth Free Life Commentary, which is called The Value of Education and is about the importance of an all-round education of the "useless" variety, as opposed merely to the acquisition of marketable skills.

I know of schools that teach information technology but not history. Again, I do not dispute the value of technical skills. I am proud of my ability to build computers and to make software work: my own website is almost entirely crafted by hand in HTML. But history also is important. An accountant who is ignorant of the French Revolution, or cannot recognise sonata form, or knows not a line of poetry, is nothing more than a skilled barbarian. In a nation where only a small minority is truly educated, legal equality becomes a hard concept to maintain, let alone political equality. In a nation without even that minority, public life must inevitably become savage and arbitrary - a thing of wild, inconstant passions, led by those unable to perceive or follow longer term goods.

That is where, I think, we are now fast approaching. We have a Prime Minister who cannot spell, and is not ashamed of the fact. We have a political class in general that lacks nearly all skill of persuasive speech and seems ignorant of the past. Of the first Ministers appointed to serve under Tony Blair, apparently, the majority listed football as their main hobby in their Who's Who entries; and not one listed any humanistic pursuit. I doubt if the Conservatives are much better. Perhaps the Judges and permanent heads of department will soon follow the trend. Little wonder our freedoms are being given up, one at a time, to moral panics and appeals to administrative convenience.

That catches the drift. I remember having a similar argument at my school, with a Latin master inevitably. He spoke of Ovid's writings about bees, claiming that to have read this was to have learned something useful. So my school was already rotten with the importance of being useful, or he would have found a quite different way to defend Ovid. However else you sell it, you can't sell Latin as better science than science.

Sean's piece doesn't convince me of much, but it is, as always, beautifully written, and Sean does at least explain nicely why such a thing is good to have. It makes your own company more pleasing. A liberal education in the sense of lots of interesting things to think about and the habit of thinking intelligently about them is accordingly an economic benefit every bit as palpable as an education in html or accountancy.

The availability of such writings as Sean's on the Internet illustrates that a liberal education is now easier to obtain then ever before. And even if the Internet didn't exist, there are all the newly liberated TV channels, a few of which provide quite cultured stuff, in among all the rubbish, that is to say in among all the stuff I don't care for. And then there are the remainder shops, which are now an amazing source of wisdom and learning.

As to the loss of our freedoms, would a different educational syllabus during the last few decades really have made that much difference? They had philistines in the nineteenth century. They may have known more Latin than the present cabinet does, but they were philistines nevertheless. And by the same token there are plenty of widely read people now, who acquaint themselves with many different things, but just with different different things to their grandparents. There's a certain sort of person Sean and I are two such, although our preferred fields of study are not at all the same who pride themselves on the broadness of their reading and thinking. Such people will always dig beneath the surface of whatever they learn, useful or useless, to the deeper meanings and profundities of their civilisation, and of other civilisations. Even if our exam results driven and vocationally obsessed schools stop bothering with such things, they will still continue.

Insofar as our bit of civilisation does need its freedoms rescuing, such a rescue is far more likely to come from the philistine USA than from the educated elites of continental Europe, whose critiques of American culture - i.e. lack of culture - Sean partly echoes. Those vulgar Americans seem to have at least as firm a grasp of our freedoms and their tendency to get lost as any product of Balliol or the Sorbonne. And the texture of their civilisation isn't that bad either.

I'm tempted to observe, so I will, that a liberal education is merely the mastery of a few techniques which happen to be obsolete, like sonata form or composing Latin verse, plus some history of a sort that has now been updated out of regular existence with the passing of time. Why concocting appalling poetry in a dead language is any better for your mind than playing adventure games on a computer or training to be a surgeon I truly do not know, and learning about sonatas dates from the time, now gone, when if you wanted to listen to music that was even adequately musical without going to a rare and expensive and probably hard-to-get-to concert, your, or your wife, or your friends, or your servants, had to make it for you. Knowing sonatas used to be a skill as relevant to enjoying life as knowing html or how to set the video is now.

I dare say that in centuries to come, people will not be considered truly educated unless they have a smattering of at least two obsolete programming languages.

But please don't let me put you off reading Sean's piece. No doubt many readers of this will agree more with him than with me about these matters.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:49 PM
Category: Liberal education
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April 17, 2003
Socialisation (again)

Today's electronic Independent has an interesting article about home schooling. It's not all that negative, and it's there. That's the big story here, not the details of what the story says. The Internet features prominently, as the means by which parents can obtain educational materials, and of course it is also one of the ways that parents learn about the home schooling option in the first place. But, inevitably, the "socialisation" objection to home schooling is also raised.

Amazing as it seems to those who can't wait to offload their kids in the morning, growing numbers of parents are educating them at home. With the resources of the internet it is easy to replicate classroom work at home, but harder to provide the teamwork and playground games, the fallings-out and makings-up, that are as essential to a child's growth as mental maths and basic literacy.

What the author of this piece, Hilary Wilce, suggests as the answer to that dilemma is a compromise. Some home schooling, and some regular schooling.

Look west and you will find a primary school in Devon that takes one child in for two days a week, and another for three, under an agreement with their parents that the rest of the children's education will be at home. The head's view is that half a week in school is better than none, and that it works if everyone co-operates.

But, as any home schoolers reading this will not need to be told, it is precisely the "socialisation" offered by many schools that they are often anxious to avoid. The kinder, gentler rhythms of family life are not merely preferred on narrowly education grounds, but precisely because it provides a superior sort of socialisation, in the form of a more gradual easing of children in to the wider world.

Consider this article which today's Independent also carries:

Children as young as four are being traumatised by a regime of formal school instruction in the Three Rs that has turned early learning into a straitjacket, teachers said yesterday.

Delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference in Blackpool said children, especially boys, became disruptive when starting maths and English lessons at too young an age. They were not ready to accept regimented lessons at four.

They called for the formal school starting age to be put back to six, as it is in most European countries.

The central point of this piece, alluded to in that last quoted sentence, concerns an old argument about when formal schooling should begin. From what I've heard and read, the continentals do this better, as this piece says. They provide a softer social landing for children in the transition between home and school.

But what the piece also illustrates is just one of the many ways in which a school can be deeply unsatisfactory, and thus home schooling loom larger as a preferred option. Here we have a new kind of bad British school, in the form of the examinationally neurotic school, which straps little tots to desks two years too soon so that they can get ahead in the exam race and hopefully stay ahead. All that actually happens is that their socialisation is messed up, in other words it is exactly where schools are supposed to be superior to home schooling that such regular schools actually fall down.

The more familiar form in which regular school "socialisation" is so often found wanting is that schools are too full of bullying not, as in the above case, by teachers of tiny pupils, but of pupils (and teachers) by other pupils. There is a huge national debate in Britain, which will never end because what it debates shows no sign of ending.

This Guardian article puts a new slant on this familiar theme by talking of the nastiness often inflicted by teachers on one another:

More than half of teachers and lecturers are being bullied by their colleagues or the parents of their students, a survey revealed today.

Responses to a questionnaire from 2,000 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers showed a "grim picture of isolation and intimidation" in schools and colleges, the union said.

That just may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but it makes the point yet again that many schools are, precisely in their "socialisation" effects, deeply unsatisfactory places.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:56 PM
Category: Home education
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April 16, 2003

I'm struggling with the appearance of my two blogs just now (here's the other), to say nothing of my website (which is so embarrassing I refuse even to link to it), and a friend has just told me about w3schools.com, which is dedicated to turning people like me into people like most of you.

Until now my only method for making headway as an internet operator has been to morally blackmail any www-fluent friends I can inveigle into my www-web. This only gets you so far. Sooner or later you need to know something of what you are doing. Now one of the moral blackmailees (who runs this blog himself) may have given me the vital piece of information, which is where to get a whole lot more of it, for myself.

The site gives me confidence, which is important in a teacher, is it not? I just have the sense that what I am being told is true, and important, and complete, and worth learning, and arranged in a way that is going to work and is accordingly going to be worth persevering with. The thing has authority, more than many human teachers I've known.

By the nature of what is being taught, I able to do and am being made to do that which I want to learn to do. I am not merely being informed about the skills I seek, I am practising them, an important distinction I think you will agree. I get to see, at once, the consequences of what I am doing. I have the main page open, where the instruction is to be found, another window where I am typing commands, and a third where the visual consequences of my commands are almost instantaneously displayed.

And unlike with the usual sort of human teacher, who insists on attendance in his classroom, there is no upper limit to the number of pupils that w3school.com can handle, every one of us at our own pace.

As I say it's very early days, but so far so good. I'm impressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:06 PM
Category: Technology
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April 15, 2003
A second literacy guess

In an earlier posting here I made the guess that the reason why English children now seem to be doing quite well at reading is that they are making headway because of their parents, but despite their schooling.

Natalie Solent took exception:

Brian's Education Blog comments in detail on the surprising success of British children in international reading tests, reported in the story a few posts down. He thinks credit is due the parents. This is undoubtedly true, but it's not just them. I think Brian does not realise the extent to which "Look and Say" is very much on the retreat even in schools. At the moment I think that the State orthodox system of how to teach reading is a fairly good system; it has been pretty good for the last five years or so.

Well, I did say I was only guessing.. Neverthelss, it is no fun to have one's speculations, however speculative, so publicly corrected.

I acquired many of my prejudices about literacy matters from reading such things as the output of the Reading Reform Foundation. The people associated with that organisation have a very different view of the efficacy of British state literacy teaching to that expressed by Natalie. What I needed was for them to join in the argument, so that I could try to confront them with one another. Is Natalie right that literacy teaching has got quite a bit better? Or are the RRF corner right to feel frustrated that things are still not being done right?

At which point two commenters on my original posting materialised through the magic of the Internet, Vicki Lynch and Debbie Hepplewhite, Debbie being the editor of the RRF newsletter, no less. I would have been delighted by such commenters at any time. That they should have come forward at the exact time when I was most hoping for exactly such people to do so was, I felt, little short of providential, and cheered my up greatly.

So, another guess to keep the discussion going, which is my attempt to reconcile the two points of view which on the face of it we can only choose between or inflict a crude compromise upon. Here's my revised guess as to what is happening in the teaching of literacy in Britain.

It hinges upon whether literacy teaching is a matter of degree or an absolute right-or-wrong matter. Are there literacy teachers who are hopelessly bad, pretty bad, okay, quite good, very good and excellent? Or is it simply a matter of doing it either rightly, or wrongly, with no half measures?

The RRF give off the vibe that you either do it right, or forget it, you are part of the problem.

I surmise that for the vulnerable minority of children, the ones who, if not taught really well are doomed to permanent confusion, not as bad as it was is not good enough. But for the lucky majority who, maybe with parental help, or maybe just because they are smart, make sense of the now improved clues that swirl around them, and, to use a frequently used metaphor from the world of literacy teaching, they crack it. They put enough of the pieces of the puzzle together to do better than children who are taught in a wholly confusing way. For the majority, I surmise, the government's half-baked and half-hearted embrace of phonetics as "part of the mix" and "one of the many approaches that can work" has been an improvement. Which explains Natalie Solent's attitude.

And this same half-hearted embrace exasperates the RRF people, because, dammit, why not do things completely right, in a way that almost all children can benefit from? In that sense the RRF people are right. Is the literacy teaching glass half full, or simply not nearly full, like a fraudulent pint in a pub? Take your pick.

That's my best second guess. I hope there are further reactions, and thanks to all those who have reacted so far.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:04 PM
Category: Literacy
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April 14, 2003
The usual story

I have a longer posting to put up Real Soon Now, but I don't want to rush it, so in the meantime here's a quicky, in the form of news that a private sector in examinations may be nearer than most people think.

The public examination and testing system in England and Wales is under such strain that it is close to breakdown, according to a report from MPs due to be published today.

Youngsters also suffer unacceptable pressures from constant testing, according to the investigation into A-level standards which will be released by the influential Commons education committee.

The report urges ministers not to introduce changes to the secondary school exam system for change's sake, and to proceed warily with plans to replace A-levels with the more challenging baccalaureate exam.

It wants schools to do more internal testing themselves in more informal situations, and warns that the shortage of markers this year is likely to be a major problem despite moves to improve the situation, such as giving teachers time off school to mark.

Etcetera etcetera. As other bloggers with lives to get on with say: read all of it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:01 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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April 13, 2003

Inspired by the amazing Honda "one take" advert, I googled "Honda" and came across ASIMO, the Honda humanoid robot.

As I have already said here, to near universal derision, there is an educational revolution embodied in mechanical beasties like these. Kids like them, and will after a few decades of tweaking have gone by be willing to learn from them. I mean, this was how the Tellytubbies operated. They were human, and they had TV sets in their stomachs to reinforce the various ideas they wanted to communicated.

Last time I tried to say stuff like this, commenters sneered. Horrible. Won't work. Too difficult. The parents won't allow it. Or maybe that was just people I talked to, I can't really remember.

Well, I don't care. I say it's the future. Not all of it, just a rather interesting aspect of it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:21 PM
Category: Technology
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